The Scrum Master’s Role in Organizational Bottlenecks

Bottlenecks occur on all planes of reality. Think of a river flowing to the ocean. What happens when that river gets obstructed by a fallen tree or a rock slide? The flow of the river narrows… but also there is overflow and unexpected consequence, both upstream and down, in the areas surrounding the bottleneck.

In organizations, we see the same things happen with teams, processes and even our own minds. Sometimes, something happens and obstructs the normal flow. When organizational bottlenecks happens, we must take action to correct the blockage and regain the flow.

organizational bottlenecksAs a Scrum Master, the initial focus is always on the team, helping them to keep the flow of their work moving at a sustainable pace. In helping to deal with the things that keep the team from being productive, the Scrum Master will inevitably have to start looking at organizational bottlenecks and impediments. These may be things like lack of communication from leaders and other stakeholders, needing resources from other teams or departments, or not being able to successfully navigate change controls or project management hoops.

When these organizational situations that go beyond the control of the team occur, how should the Scrum Master respond? One method of response is to use the following steps for approaching organizational bottlenecks:

Determine the kind of bottleneck you are dealing with

Einstein is quoted as saying “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Too often we rush to find solutions without fully understanding what it is we are trying solve. That’s why the first step is to determine the type of bottleneck you are dealing with. Some possible types of bottlenecks to consider are clarity of vision, priority, resource availability, lack of knowledge, and lack of clarity around decision rights.

Collect feedback, involve input

Time to let those facilitation and collaboration skills shine. Bringing others in on the problem creates a shared sense of ownership and accountability. Involving those directly related to the organizational bottleneck, especially the scrum team, also ensures cross-functional knowledge and availability of information. Consider using a facilitation tool, such as Six Thinking Hats, to aid in the problem analysis and solution generation.

Identify and Engage with decision makers

When the way forward is blocked because no one owns the decision, then an owner must be identified. Often, decision rights are not clear. If you don’t know who actually gets to make a final decision, how will anything get decided? Ask the question: “Who is ultimately accountable for this decision?” Once identified, have a discussion about moving approval authority closer to the point of decision to prevent future impediments.

Present options for resolution

No one likes people that bring problems with no solutions…. But people also like options. Once there is clarity around the problem and decision makers, it’s time to bring those solutions together! Many decision makers need contrast in order to decide. It is helpful to offer multiple options and present the risks of not doing or not making a decision.

Ask for commitment

Gaining verbal commitment from all involved is critical. There’s a saying that one of my old MBA professors used to use: “Weigh in equals buy-in.” That means there’s a big difference between a silent nod and a verbal yes. Ask each person to commit out loud. Also, ask those that are uncertain to “disagree and commit,” meaning give them a chance to voice their concerns, then ask if they are willing to try it anyway, noting their disagreement. You’d be surprised how many people just need to be heard before agreeing to move ahead.


Organizational bottlenecks can be tricky because they are more complex and often political in nature. The ability to articulate the full situation and visually represent where the flow is blocked is critical. Whenever possible one should show, not just tell. Shared visuals create mutual clarity. Utilizing facts, the input of various parties, and gaining commitment to options for addressing organizational bottlenecks can help remove them in a timely fashion. Ultimately, the Scrum Master must be diligent and respectful as they continue to chip away at such impediments (like the rock along the river bank) and get the flow going again.

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Jeremiah Hopkins
Jeremiah Hopkins